English is difficult to learn and use properly, whether it is your birth tongue or a second language. Incorrect or ambiguous usage can cause you, your business plan, and your company no end of problems.

For an entertaining sojourn into English etymology pick up Bill Bryson‘s book The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way.

Unlike most languages, English is a polyglot. It is a sponge that has readily soaked up words, meanings, structures, and pronunciations from Norman, Norse, Germanic, Briton, Latin and who knows how many other languages. It is highly malleable, dropping unused words, and adding hundreds of new words yearly. It has numerous unique word categories for which we, characteristically, have special words. Here are just a few:

  • Homonyms(1): Words that have the same spelling but different meanings, such as fleet (a group of ships) and fleet (swift).
  • Homonyms(2): Words which sound the same but have different spellings and different meanings; there, their, and they’re being, perhaps, the most abused. “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.” — Edward Abby, The Monkey Wrench Gang
  • Synonyms: Words which are different but convey the same or almost the same meaning, such as a business, a company, a venture, an enterprise, a corporation, etc.  Charlton Laird, author of Webster’s New World Thesaurus, points out that English is the only language that has or needs a thesaurus. “Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist.” —The Miracle of Language
  • Palindromes: Words, phrases or passages that read the same forward or backward. “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama.” Or more simply, Otto.
  • Onomatopoeia: The formation or use of words that imitate the sound of the object or action, such as “hiss” or “buzz”.
  • Malapropisms: The unintentional use of a wrong, similar sounding word, especially when the effect is ridiculous. Just today my co-editor Sara heard a government official on the radio saying they were working on various “secession” plans for improving performance at government agencies when a new President is elected and has to appoint new leaders. He probably didn’t mean to be speaking treason and sedition.Definitions from Encarta World English Dictionary.

So, choose your words carefully as you conduct your business.

—Steve Lange